'Merci Pour le Chocolat'

When director Claude Chabrol cast Isabelle Huppert in the title role of his 1978 "Violette," as a notorious real-life teenage killer leading a double life, he found in her the ideal actress to express his career-long fascination with how bourgeoise propriety can mask and distort emotions. Huppert is arguably without parallel among contemporary international movie stars in her ability to suggest, with the utmost subtlety, rage and conflict roiling beneath the most composed and controlled demeanor.

The two have teamed many times since, and now with "Merci Pour le Chocolat" they've come up with one of their best, a pitch-dark comedy of manners that builds to a tragic revelation. In his 48th film of his 44-year career, New Wave pioneer Chabrol remains at the height of his powers.

Working from Charlotte Armstrong's "The Chocolate Cobweb," Chabrol opens with a pair of amusing multi-character set pieces that convey a wealth of exposition. In lesser hands, all this information could be confusing but here plays with brisk humor, while also introducing an unsettling note. The first scene is a civil wedding somewhere in Switzerland between Mika Muller (Huppert), a chocolate heiress, and Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), a renowned concert pianist.

At the reception, we learn that the couple had been married briefly years before, and that Andre's second wife, Lisbeth, had been one of Mika's closest friends but was killed in a car accident eight years ago. For three years, Mika and Andre have been living together in Mika's hilltop estate, a formidable 19th century stone mansion with contemporary interior decoration in perfect but blandly impersonal taste, which also characterizes Mika's well-tailored wardrobe. Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), Andre and Lisbeth's 18-year-old son, is currently home on a school vacation.

At a restaurant, meanwhile, we meet several more people chatting over lunch. A friend of Dr. Louise Pollet (Brigitte Catillon), the widowed head of a forensic research lab, goes on about the Muller-Polonski remarriage, and then indiscreetly remarks that Guillaume and Dr. Pollet's daughter Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), born the same day in the same hospital, may have been accidentally switched at birth. Dr. Pollet insists the confusion was swiftly dispelled, but Jeanne is all ears, as this is news to her. A headstrong beauty, Jeanne happens to be an aspiring concert pianist, and she can't resist seeking out Andre Polonski.

Chabrol has now neatly set his story in motion. Andre also pooh-poohs the switched-at-birth rumor but is enchanted by Jeanne, who does, however, remind him of Lisbeth. Mika goes out of her way to welcome Jeanne, who soon is being coached by Andre for a major competition in Budapest. As preoccupied as Jeanne is, she is also keenly aware of her surroundings. Disturbed by witnessing a thermos of hot chocolate being deliberately spilled, she has the handkerchief she stained in helping mop up the beverage analyzed by her boyfriend, Axel (Mathieu Simonet), who has just gone to work at her mother's lab. It contains a sizable amount of the drug favored by date rapists.

For quite some time the suspect's motivations seem as obvious as the suspect's identity. But Chabrol as always goes way beyond genre and its expectations. The mystery that concerns him is not in the unraveling of a well-populated, complicated plot, but how it reveals the mystery of the workings of the human heart and how an unthinking adherence to convention can perversely twist the human psyche.

Key here is the parent-child relationship and how it shapes an individual's destiny, and how a biological connection can pale beside a loving, nurturing parental bond; sociopaths, Chabrol suspects, are more likely to be the result of nurture rather than nature. (Interestingly, Chabrol's co-writer, Caroline Eliacheff, is a child psychiatrist.)

Huppert heads an impeccable ensemble cast that includes the delightful veteran Swiss comedian Michel Robin. Once again Chabrol's son Mathieu has composed a crucially evocative score, and Renato Berta's cinematography is gleaming. "Merci Pour le Chocolat" crackles with wit and elegance, humor and pathos.

Unrated. Times guidelines: complex adult themes.

'Merci Pour le Chocolat'

Isabelle Huppert... Mika Muller

Jacques Dutronc...Andre Polonski

Anna Mouglalis...Jeanne Pollet

Rodolphe Pauly...Guillaume Polonski

An Empire Pictures release of a Franco-Swiss co-production: MK2 Productions, France 2 Cinema, Television Suisse Romande, YMC Productions. Director Claude Chabrol. Producer Marin Karmitz (MK2 Productions). Executive producer Jean-Louis Porchet (CAB Productions). Screenplay Caroline Eliacheff and Chabrol; based on "The Chocolate Cobweb" by Charlotte Armstrong. Cinematographer Renato Berta. Chief editor Monique Fardoulis. Music Mathieu Chabrol. Costumes Elisabeth Tavernier. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.

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